By Chris McGrath
The American Turf is a less colorful place today as horsemen everywhere mourn the loss on Thursday night of one of its most vivid and accomplished characters, James “J.J.” Crupi. He was 79.
His many grieving friends in the business could comfort themselves that while Crupi had suffered health problems for some time, he had been able to persevere in what he loved doing–and did as well as the very best–right to the end. In fact, some of them had enjoyed listening to him holding court, despite his deteriorating health, on the opening day of the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Old Sale this very week. For he had never allowed his difficulties to interfere with his ebullient embrace of life.
Only weeks ago, he had made headlines at the same company’s Gulfstream sale, topping the auction with a $3.65 million son of Curlin sold to agents Donato Lanni and Jamie McCalmont on behalf of M.V. Magnier and an undisclosed partner. If he can justify his price, however, that colt will only be the latest in a litany of Grade I winners educated by Crupi at his New Castle Farm outside Ocala, including Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming (Bodemeister), top-class miler Liam’s Map (Unbridled’s Song) and champion juvenile Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie).
Crupi’s ability to cultivate talent had been honed by a long first career on the racetracks of the Northeast, extending more than 30 years and featuring four titles at Monmouth Park, before he redeveloped the former Happy Valley Farm in 1995. But his horsemanship, exceptional as it was, was more than matched by the enjoyment he gave his clients.
In the case of Vinnie Viola–whose St Elias Stables acquired Liam’s Map through Crupi as a yearling, and who also shared in the success of Always Dreaming–that enjoyment extended into a deep empathy.
Viola was blessed to meet Crupi at his first horse sale, at Keeneland eight years ago. The two men discovered an instant, nearly intuitive bond. Viola recognised in Crupi a radiant priority in life. “Which was that you have to put other people before yourself,” he explained Friday. “That’s what you should strive to do at all times, because you’re given these gifts by God and you have to share them; and remain supremely confident in your ability to give; and not be hurt by giving. And I think if you have that in your life, it turns you into a gentleman like James Crupi, who absolutely lived life to the utmost, with the will of a warrior.”
Besides that “unstoppable” will, Viola credits Crupi’s success to an exceptional attention to detail, “maniacal discipline” and his sheer passion for the horse.
“Jimmy lost his father when he was nine years old,” Viola related. “He lived in an old-world, very traditional Italian-American family. He was raised by his mother, who I think was the greatest single influence on his life. His uncles, after his father died, took him to the racetrack and from that moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life: he fell immediately into a furious, insatiable love of the game.
“And when he was about 14, 15 years old, he ran away from his home in northern New Jersey to Monmouth racetrack. His mother obviously got very concerned and sent his uncles looking for him. And they found Jimmy basically living between a tack-room and a stall. They admonished him and brought him home. And, not too long after that, he did it again. Finally, when he became the age when you could get working papers, he got a job walking horses.”
The one silver lining to their loss is that Viola and his wife Teresa were able to fly to Baltimore in time to make a “beautiful, very graceful” last visit with Crupi in hospital.
“The first thing Teresa and I said to each other this morning was it will never be the same,” Viola said. “Jimmy reminded me of my dad. My dad was my best friend and Jimmy quickly became one of my best friends, really like a member of my extended family. We could sometimes look at each other, and paragraphs were spoken with just one look. He did not have a bad bone in his body, never refused anybody any help, and my selfish regret is that I only met him eight years ago.
“One of the happiest moments of my life was when Jimmy grabbed the shank of Liam’s Map after he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile. He was already in pain and in an unsteady manner walked the horse into the winner’s circle.”
To Viola, Liam’s Map exemplified the way Crupi’s human qualities dovetailed with his skills as a horseman. “He was a true believer that a horse must be given the time and the chance to fulfill its potential,” he said. “Jimmy taught me that early on and Liam’s Map is a primary example. This is a guy who, when he was suffering great pain, would just accommodate that pain to attend to the horses. Really and truly, he had a love of the animal like I’ve never seen. And here’s a guy who started with less than nothing. I have such deep respect for a person like this, who did it the right way.”
Boyd Browning, president and chief executive officer of Fasig-Tipton, tried to put into words what could be expected when you would visit Crupi’s barn at the sales.
“Well, it would be loud,” he said. “It would definitely be loud, and there would definitely be a lot of enthusiasm. Jimmy would tell you this was one of the best fillies on the farm, and that this colt was so fast he didn’t know how he was going to be able to control him during the under-tack show. But then, after you got through listening to a few stories, Jimmy would look you in the eye and say: ‘I really do like this horse.’ And buyers always knew they could have a lot of confidence when doing business with Jimmy.
“His slogan was always ‘There’s no hassle at the Castle.’ And that was because Jimmy dealt very straightforwardly and honestly with people. He was one of the best customers we had, but also one of the most enjoyable people to do business with that I’ve ever run across. He was beloved by all the people within our company, and across our industry. He leaves a huge void. Huge.
“He was one of a kind, an amazing horseman, and obviously the number and quality of horses that passed through his hands was remarkable. But more important was just the number of people Jimmy helped, the people he gave a leg-up. It would be impossible to estimate how many were down on their luck, and needed a job, and he helped them out on the farm; how many needed a little boost to the confidence, and he’d give them a kind word; how many needed a couple of horses, trainers who were struggling, and he’d find them a couple of clients to give them an opportunity.”
That recollection was matched by New Jersey-based trainer Al Goldberg, who knew Crupi for 40 years. “He was the kind of person that would help anybody, and he had helped all kinds of people in the past 20 years,” said Goldberg, who first knew Crupi as a trainer at Monmouth and also did business with him once he opened the training center at Ocala. “Any person who needed help could go to Jimmy Crupi, and he would help him. People with an addiction getting started again, people who needed a job-they could go to him and he would help. Nobody knew that about him because he came across as this big, gruff guy, but he would help anyone.”
Mike Repole, for whom Crupi found Uncle Mo deep in the Keeneland September Sale, said he was “devastated” by the news.
“He was a larger-than-life personality,” Repole said. “One of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever been around and one of the biggest influences I’ve had in this industry. Before I met Jimmy I’d started with claiming horses, $10,000 to $50,000, but when I started to buy yearlings and 2-year-olds, and having horses broken at the farm, there was nobody who taught me more about that side of the business.
“He broke in every single good horse I ever had and picked out probably 90 percent of them. He basically put Repole Stable on the map when he picked out Uncle Mo back in 2008.”
Repole had recently endured an expensive failure by Indian Charlie when Crupi proposed Uncle Mo. “When he called me up and told me he had a horse, [Hip] 1193, I ran through the book and got real excited but when I saw it was an Indian Charlie I wanted nothing to do with it,” Repole said. “I told him I didn’t want to spend more than $200,000. And when it got to $210,000 I was relieved. Then he told me to hit one more time, it was a can’t-miss horse. Jimmy had told me this before but trust me, none of them turned out like Uncle Mo! I remember hanging up that phone probably more pissed than I had ever been in my life that I’d just spent $220,000 on a horse I wanted nothing to do with. So he deserves 100 percent of the credit, for picking him out and also for convincing me.”
Browning said he suspected that Crupi owed much of his success to learning how horses prepare for races, long before he ever thought of preparing them for sales. In his youth, after all, he had no kind of start in the game. Crupi, who once professed to have first aspired to be a sulky driver, learned the Thoroughbred ropes under Ron Gibson before taking out a license at 27.
“I think one of the things that made him unique was the vast experience he had as an actual trainer,” Browning explained. “A lot of those nagging things that might have bothered other people didn’t bother him. But he damned sure knew when to slow down on a horse. And how to take care of each horse, individually. It wasn’t a case of here’s the program and the horse would have to adapt: he evaluated each and every horse, and kind of had a sixth sense about what to do with them.”
Cherished as he was for his reliably coveted offerings at Fasig-Tipton, Crupi was a shareholder in OBS, whose president Tom Ventura likewise remembered him as “one of a kind.”
“They certainly broke the mold when J.J. was born,” Ventura said. “Everybody loved him, and he’s going to be sadly missed. He always made things entertaining, and he treated everyone the same–whether the grooms in his consignment, or the wealthiest people he dealt with at the high end. He put a very good team in place, and he was a straight shooter, a believable guy. The fact that he knew both sides of the racetrack meant that when he told somebody this horse was good to go, or that this one needed a little time, just give him a breather, they had the information they needed for their best chance to succeed.
“He was always very giving. Even in recent times, when he had to resort to needing oxygen a lot of the time, he’d always be thinking of little things to make somebody feel appreciated. One Sunday morning I was in the office, and he was just bedded down for a sale, and he showed up with all these pies. Said he’d found this place that makes the best pies in the world, and wanted the girls to have some. That was typical of him. He enjoyed being around people, and he didn’t take anything for granted.”
That expansive nature was familiar across the generations. Bloodstock agent Justin Casse will always remember his son telling Crupi how much he wanted a pellet gun, and that when they next visited the farm Crupi had one waiting for him.
“He was always very welcoming and generous. He was a giver,” Casse said. “After that, whenever we pulled into OBS, he was always the first person my son wanted to see. It’s been a sad year for our community, after we lost J.B. McKathan as well, so this is a tough day. The Crupi shoes will be very tough to fill. He was big with the Italian community, he had a number of high-profile clients, everybody liked to congregate at his farm in the morning.
“And when you go through that long list of good horses he’d been associated with, you’ll see there was a little bit of everything: some he bought, some he’d been sent; he’d buy nice horses for cheaper prices, but would also have higher profile yearlings that were being re-offered too. So it’s not like he was buying the obvious horse. He was just very good at his job.
“And, of course, a very welcoming character: very charming with the women, hilarious to be around, he almost had like a Rodney Dangerfield sense of humor. Dinners with him were very memorable, he had a ton of one-liners, though I don’t know if any of them would be suitable for print!”
Among those who knew him well, grief is unmistakably assuaged by the fact that Crupi had lived his allotted span of life to the full. Only last Saturday he hosted a Preakness party at his hotel in Maryland, and was evidently the life and soul as usual.
“Listen, I saw him at the horse sale four days ago,” stressed Casse. “He continued to do what he loved to do, until his last days. It was less than two years ago went to France for the first time, to buy at Arqana, and he was trying to get customers interested in going again. So albeit his health wasn’t the greatest, he wasn’t going to be stopped or even held back.”
New Jersey-based attorney and bloodstock advisor Eddie Rosen knew Crupi for more than 40 years and summed up the professional community’s bereavement characteristically well.
“Racing history will record his many successes, his keen eye for recognizing talent and his ability to develop raw talent into a finished product,” Rosen said. “For me, in an industry increasingly devoid of colorful characters, J.J. Crupi was a throwback to the world of Damon Runyon. He was one of a kind, maybe a little rough around the edges, but inside that larger-than-life persona beat a heart of gold. He could always bring a smile with his many humorous quips and his zest for life. My family and I will miss him dearly. One of Crupi’s expressions, which was a favorite of my grandchildren, was: ‘If it’s not fun, we’re not going to do it.’ The world without him is a lot less fun today.”
But the last word goes to Repole, who views the success of Uncle Mo as almost incidental to the deeper riches he found in Crupi’s company. “You know what, whether he picked out a horse for $200,000 that can run for me, or $500,000 that couldn’t, it was always fun,” Repole said. “You don’t mind losing money when you make friendships like this and he had a big influence in my life. He was so great for my entire family, from my dad to my nieces and nephews–he was just part of my family, he was just a super special individual who connected with everybody in his life.”